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Yankees Magazine: Somebody to Lean On

His job title reads hitting coach, but Marcus Thames does much more than that for the young Yankees
Yankees Magazine

Most ballplayers don't go out on their own terms, particularly not 34-year-old backup outfielders hitting .197. And so when the Los Angeles Dodgers released Marcus Thames on July 19, 2011, it signaled the end of Thames' playing career. Although he signed with the Yankees two days later -- his third stint with the club that drafted him in the 30th round back in 1996 -- his name never appeared in another box score. The game had told him it was time to go.

Thames retreated to Mississippi afterward and slowly became acclimated with an existence no longer spent in locker rooms, posh hotels and chartered airplanes. He became a full-time student, earning his degree at Mississippi State University, but also a full-time husband, father and son. Thames spent Mother's Day and the Fourth of July with his mom, Veterine, who raised her five children with care and discipline even after being paralyzed in an automobile accident in 1982. He was also alongside her on her last birthday; Veterine Thames died on Sept. 23, 2012.

Most ballplayers don't go out on their own terms, particularly not 34-year-old backup outfielders hitting .197. And so when the Los Angeles Dodgers released Marcus Thames on July 19, 2011, it signaled the end of Thames' playing career. Although he signed with the Yankees two days later -- his third stint with the club that drafted him in the 30th round back in 1996 -- his name never appeared in another box score. The game had told him it was time to go.

Thames retreated to Mississippi afterward and slowly became acclimated with an existence no longer spent in locker rooms, posh hotels and chartered airplanes. He became a full-time student, earning his degree at Mississippi State University, but also a full-time husband, father and son. Thames spent Mother's Day and the Fourth of July with his mom, Veterine, who raised her five children with care and discipline even after being paralyzed in an automobile accident in 1982. He was also alongside her on her last birthday; Veterine Thames died on Sept. 23, 2012.

"If I was playing," Thames says, "I wouldn't have been there."

Throughout 2012 -- between the schoolwork and the parenting, during the time with mom and without her -- Thames stayed glued to the TV watching baseball. He still had friends in MLB and was invested in their pennant races. But he also had another reason for tuning in: Thames didn't want to become disconnected from the game.

"When I lost my mother, that's when I knew I had to get back into the game of baseball before it was too late," Thames says. "I didn't want to stay out too long. I knew eventually I wanted to coach."

Thames sits perched on a bench in the home dugout at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Florida, on a startlingly cold January afternoon, having just coached his Yankees Fantasy Camp squad to victory. In a few weeks he will officially be named the Yankees' new hitting coach, a stunning ascent from where his coaching career started, which was here, in Tampa, as the organization's High-A hitting coach in 2013. But how he arrived here -- steward of potentially the most explosive offense in the game -- wouldn't be considered stunning if you knew anything about Marcus Thames.

***

There are often two paths for former players who want to stay close to the game: broadcasting and coaching. Thames was groomed for the latter. He maintained contact with various baseball people after retiring in hopes a job would materialize. The networking paid off when Mark Newman, then the Yankees' vice president of baseball operations, called Thames prior to the 2013 season and offered him a coaching position in Tampa. It was Thames' dream job to work in the same organization that drafted and developed him. "A no-brainer," he says now. But Thames didn't jump at the offer. "I said, 'Let me think about it and get back to you.'"

Thames was in awe after hanging up, overwhelmed he says. He took a step back, a long breath and soaked it in. He didn't have to sleep on it; he knew his answer. Still, he waited until morning before telling Newman his decision.

Thames moved his family to Tampa, where they still reside, to join Luis Sojo's staff as the team's hitting coach. There were hurdles, of course. Thames didn't know the players. Who needed tough love? Who could take criticism and who couldn't? For that he leaned on Sojo, whom Thames nicknamed "Papa." A veteran leader who also transitioned quickly into coaching, Sojo told Thames that the job required two things: Patience and an ability to be persistent about getting the players to the batting cages. It was a challenge at first.

"He came to me and said, 'Papa, I'm losing my patience with these guys already,'" Sojo remembers. "We had Gary Sanchez that season in Tampa and there were times when Gary showed up late to meetings and workouts, but Marcus was big in getting him to straighten out. He got him into the cages and kept him there. He was tough on Gary and some of the other players, but also able to have really good relationships with them. I knew right away that he had a bright future in coaching."

The manager was impressed at how Thames navigated the roles of good cop/bad cop with each player. "He got into their faces when he needed to," Sojo says. "But the next day, I would see him sitting in the dugout with the same guys, explaining what they needed to do. The players really respected him for that."

Thames also immersed himself in all aspects of the game, talking game strategy with Sojo and learning about fielding, baserunning and pitching -- grounds outside his jurisdiction as hitting coach. Thames was on the fast track, promoted to Double-A Trenton in 2014, Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes- Barre in 2015 (a season in which the RailRiders would lead the International League in batting average) and then, prior to the 2016 season, he was named the Yankees' assistant hitting coach.

But his future in pinstripes was in doubt once the Yankees decided not to bring back manager Joe Girardi after 2017; incoming managers rarely retain their predecessor's coaching staff. "Me having a family, that was pretty concerning," Thames says. "I was like everybody else, waiting and waiting and waiting."

Aaron Boone was officially named Yankees manager on Dec. 4. Shortly thereafter, around the time of the Winter Meetings, Thames says that Yankees senior vice president and general manager Brian Cashman told him he would replace Alan Cockrell as the team's hitting coach.

The signs pointing to his return are clear now. If we learned anything this offseason, it's that a coach's résumé is more than just wins and losses. Yes, results matter. Past performance is important. But growth, getting better, is paramount. And for a young team to fulfill its potential, to win the World Series, the right voice comes from someone who can communicate and connect with fledgling talent. In this case, the right voice wasn't necessarily a new one.

Thames' ascent in the organization dovetailed with the emergence of the Baby Bombers -- Sanchez, Aaron Judge, Greg Bird et. al. -- all of whom Thames coached in the Minor Leagues. His track record of working with young players -- these young players -- is evident. More than likely, it's the reason he got the job. "I guess Cash trusted me with guys," Thames says. "I have the familiarity with all the players and hopefully the respect."

***

Growing up in Louisville, Mississippi -- a town centered on school, sports and church -- Marcus Thames spent his formative years looking for a way out. "I tried to do everything," he says. "Being a kid from the inner city, from the projects, you try to find something that will help yourself get out, so I tried every single thing, especially in athletics, to help myself get out of certain situations."

Football was king in this corner of SEC country, where Thames played wide receiver and defensive back for Louisville High School. He would then transition to basketball in the winter, before lacing up his baseball cleats each spring. Like most high school kids, the summer before graduation was pivotal to Thames' future. He decided to make changes: He would not play basketball during his senior year. And he would join the National Guard.

He remembers taking a bus from Jackson, Mississippi, to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, with 60 other recruits for basic training. Looking back, he says that the experience propelled his baseball career, instilling discipline and mental toughness. "Marcus had a seriousness about him," says Brad Peterson, a former baseball teammate at Louisville. "You could always tell he was mature even though he could be silly with the rest of us. You could tell he had his head on right."

The hardship in Thames' personal life became his inspiration. "[My mom] made certain sacrifices for us as kids," he says. "You look back at that stuff and you use it -- I used that for motivation in everything."

Thames played second base during his senior year and then enrolled in East Central Community College in Decatur, Mississippi, where he would transition to the outfield and flourish at the plate. The Yankees then took a 30th-round flier on him, a raw kid with good hands.

Thames reported with low expectations. As such a low pick, he thought that he wouldn't get the same attention as the players selected ahead him, the guys with the stronger pedigree and more lucrative signing bonuses. But, he says, the organization made him feel like a top prospect and eventually turned him into a Major League ballplayer. He learned to keep his hands back and use the whole field instead of pulling balls foul. And with time, it started clicking -- Thames hit 31 home runs while batting .321 at Double-A Norwich in 2001.

He famously made his Major League debut in June 2002 against future Hall of Famer Randy Johnson, clubbing the first pitch he saw over Yankee Stadium's left-center field wall for a home run. But he was traded to Texas in June 2003 and shuttled between Detroit and Triple-A Toledo in 2004 and 2005. He enjoyed a breakout season in 2006 at the age of 29, hitting 26 home runs for the American League-champion Tigers. Through it all, he never lost faith in his ability. "Once I had spikes on," Thames says, "I always thought I had a chance."

Thames would go on to have a 10-year career as a fourth outfielder and designated hitter, averaging one home run per 15.9 at bats, which would be good for 30th all-time -- sandwiched between Albert Pujols and David Ortiz -- if Thames had enough plate appearances to qualify.

***

Those who can, do; those who can't, coach. Those who can, just not quite often enough, have to make a choice. Thames made his decision early on. For a role player, the dugout can be like a classroom offering a 162-game course in advanced baseball. And while Thames wasn't regularly in the lineup, he was always present and alert. He was inquisitive in the dugout, questioning the bench coach about strategy and shadowing the manager as he made tough decisions. Thames loved talking hitting with teammates such as Magglio Ordoñez, Miguel Cabrera and Gary Sheffield. He was learning lessons the whole way, not least of which was that no two hitters were exactly alike.

Thames doesn't employ a rote hitting philosophy to be applied up and down the lineup -- aside from preaching to stay in the strike zone. "But I don't call that a philosophy," he says. "That's for everyone, even my 8-year-old son." Instead, with the help of scouting reports from the front office, Thames tailors a specific approach for each hitter on the roster; what works for a lefty pull-hitter is likely of no help to a right-handed batter with a natural inside-out swing.

"What makes a hitting coach a good hitting coach is their ability to adapt to each player," Bird says. "There could be little things in my swing, little words that I use that wouldn't make any sense to you but they might mean the same thing in a weird way. Like I say 'Stay Back,' you say 'Go Forward,' but in our minds we're talking about the same thing. Marcus has been good at that, at being able to understand what type of hitter he has and adapt to him."

A lot of research and preparation goes into being a hitting coach, a mostly thankless title that, like a field-goal kicker in football, is an afterthought during the good times but makes for an easy scapegoat when things go south. On a typical day during the season when the team is home, Thames arrives at Yankee Stadium around noon for a quick workout. He then digs into video, scouts opposing pitchers, consumes the scouting report and devises a game plan. Once the guys start rolling in, he patrols the batting cages.

From there, Thames does more than just place a ball on the tee or lob soft-toss. His job is to disseminate information into digestible bullet points for each player, whether it's discussing a mechanical issue with one guy's swing or the tendencies of that night's starting pitcher. He has to get them to the point where they are both physically and mentally ready to compete. Thames likens the role to a part-time psychiatrist. "Baseball is a game of failure, and guys need somebody to lean on," Thames says. "Sometimes you come to the cages, and it's not all about baseball; you talk about other things, too."

Since baseball is a kids game and those who reach the Bigs are well compensated and heroes to millions, it's easy to forget that an actual human exists in that uniform, someone with doubts and insecurities and problems, whether domestic, professional or sometimes existential.

"Baseball is a game that's not only a grind on the field but off the field, too," Tyler Austin says. "We all have things that go on in our lives at home, and Marcus has helped me out a ton when it comes to getting to know me and my family and understanding that I've had things that have gone on in the past. He's been a guy that I can talk to about it. That's been huge for me, having that guy in the clubhouse. I know that if something goes wrong at home, I can talk to him about that, as well.

"I can't say enough good things about Marcus Thames. He's a great, great guy and a great hitting coach."

***

As the Yankees searched for a new manager last fall, Thames, uncertain about his future with the club, moonlighted as a hitting coach, schooling his 8-year-old son in the art of hitting. He didn't coach a team, per se, but with four children at home, he stayed busy. "A lot of car pools," he jokes.

Upon learning that he would be returning, Thames prepared for Spring Training. He claims that the promotion didn't alter his responsibilities much, but he did have work to do, seeing as the Yankees added a few big bats in the offseason, most notably reigning National League MVP Giancarlo Stanton. He immediately sought inside info on Stanton, calling the 28-year-old's former hitting coach, Frank Menechino, and asking, "What makes Stanton tick?" Thames also spoke to the slugger. "You get a feel for him, and it makes it a little easier for him when he comes in," Thames says.

There will likely come a time this season when Stanton goes into a slump. At that point, Thames will have to work his magic. He will look at video. He will consult with scouts and crunch the numbers. Maybe Thames will reflect on something Stanton told him during their initial conversation to find the answer. He won't have to turn Stanton into a good hitter; last year's Major League home run leader already is that. Like any good hitting coach, Thames will help on the margins, letting Stanton unlock his own true ability. He'll help him navigate the mental and mechanical failings that lead to tough times. Then he'll do the same for every other hitter on the roster.

It's his job, on his terms. The Yankees are going to hit this year, and then some. Thames will be the guy in the background, making them tick, same as he has from their earliest days in pro ball.

Thomas Golianopoulos is the associate editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the April 2018 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.

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